Don Van Vliet at Michael Werner by Jutta Koether

This was printed in the May 1987 edition of Artscribe.

Last year Captain Beefheart, one of the few musicians left on earth who doesn’t just deserve the label unique but actually embodies uniqueness, made his first public appearance as a painter with an exhibition at Michael Werner. A great deal of pressure from friends and admirers, among them A.R. Penck and Julian Schnabel, had finally produced a small show of the artist’s work, an exhibition to be regarded more as an event for admirers and fans than as the first one man show by an aspiring artist. Because, after all, Don van Vliet is not an aspiring artist, but an elderly man who has made music all his life but who also has always painted.

Which makes it all the more surprising that this second exhibition at Werner – comprising ten large-format oils – represents a definite advance in terms of painting. Larger formats (the works in the first exhibition were all significantly smaller; many were on paper or cardboard) allow the madness to spread itself; there is more rawness, more unmixed colour; more scope for emptiness, for brush strokes, for paint applied directly from the tube; and for all those heads and animals and frightened, staring eyes. These figurative elements, which previously were inserted with almost child-like naivety into abstract wastes, are here carefully isolated from each other. This means that they are taken over even more by the increasingly painterly and expanded abstract chaos.

This expansion unfolds, without tricks of finesse, on semi- or unprimed grounds; it appears as a single, brittle, awkward movement of a mass, which can overwhelm the viewer, not because of its violence, but because of its vibrant brittleness and penetration. The vibration is the emergence of painting which won’t admit that it is painting, but which nonetheless surrenders itself to – even pays tribute to – society and the gallery system. In other words, it produces large format, classically-made, “proper” paintings; but, using highly concentrated chaos and hardness, it crosses all this, marches through it and fights it.

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